Review: Slewfoot by Brom

Think of me what you will, but this delightful horror novel satisfied that little part of me that always sort of wished the women persecuted as witches had actually had some dark power they could summon to punish the people who arrested, abused, and murdered them. 😈

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

A spirited young Englishwoman, Abitha, arrives at a Puritan colony betrothed to a stranger – only to become quickly widowed when her husband dies under mysterious circumstances. All alone in this pious and patriarchal society, Abitha fights for what little freedom she can grasp onto, while trying to stay true to herself and her past.

Enter Slewfoot, a powerful spirit of antiquity newly woken… and trying to find his own role in the world. Healer or destroyer? Protector or predator? But as the shadows walk and villagers start dying, a new rumor is whispered: Witch.

Both Abitha and Slewfoot must swiftly decide who they are, and what they must do to survive in a world intent on hanging any who meddle in the dark arts.

My thoughts

I had only read one book by Brom before this one, and while I did enjoy the darkly festive Krampus, I wasn’t exactly blown away by it. I really thought the writing for Slewfoot much more polished, but still packing that gory punch I was looking for from this author. Brom does a nice job developing both of the main characters throughout the story, and I’m impressed with how well he wrote the mind of the female character, Abitha. Slewfoot himself (named Samson by Abitha) is a maybe-devil having an identity crisis, and I really enjoyed reading along as he discovered himself and his purpose again.

Throughout the book, Abitha matures from a girl sold into a life that she never wanted to her own woman. Despite the odds, she has a good relationship with her husband, Edward, though she is widowed and left alone in this harsh time and place to be a woman. Edward’s brother, Wallace, is pure villain: a selfish, self-righteous, clod of a man who develops a nasty vendetta against his brother’s widow. Samson is lost and being manipulated from a couple of directions, but his good soul connects with Abitha’s and they begin to create their own magic.

The most riveting part of the book is also the most painful to read: the impromptu witch trial the Puritans have for Abitha, which also sucks in her friend Sarah. While Abitha comes from a line of cunning women and experiences magic with Samson, Sarah is a god-fearing Puritan woman, innocent of anything remotely resembling witchery, but quite guilty of having been nice to Abitha. Brom does a fantastic job of using just these two women and some trumped-up charges based on hatred and selfishness of one man to show how an entire community got wrapped up in persecution and paranoia. The author does not shy away from the torture and humiliation that Abitha and Sarah endure: it’s brutal, terrifying, and sickening. Unlike the real people who were brutalized as witches throughout history, though, Abitha ultimately gets a choice, thanks to her friendship with Samson, to fight back:

Abitha laughed. “You think me worried about my soul?” She laughed again, loud and fierce, locking blazing eyes on Samson. “I’ve no soul left,” she growled. “They’ve crucified my fucking soul!”

I’m not the least bit ashamed to have enjoyed the hell out of her choice and what happened after.

Having said that, I recognize that this book is not for everyone. While it’s full of magic and wonder, folklore and nature, with feminist and eco-minded rhetoric, this book is horror. It’s bloody and gory, with death and lots of unhappy endings for various characters, and if you are the kind of reader that needs trigger warnings, you should probably steer clear of Slewfoot. On the other hand, if you like darkly atmospheric historical fiction/fantasy with a healthy dose of terror, this may be the tale of bewitchery that you’re looking for.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my copy in exchange for this honest review.


Review: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

I’m one of the chorus of lovers of Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, so of course I was thrilled to receive an ARC of Harlem Shuffle. Heists and crime stories aren’t usually my go-to, so I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed it.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

“Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…” To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.

Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time.

Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask questions, either.

Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa—the “Waldorf of Harlem”—and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?

Harlem Shuffle’s ingenious story plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

My thoughts

From the description and the reviews I’ve seen, I was expecting a gritty crime caper with a historical Harlem backdrop. While that’s a valid, if bare-bones, description of Harlem Shuffle, the book in actuality is so much more. Funny, engaging, liberally peppered with societal issues, and blessed with vivid depictions of 1960s Harlem, Whitehead’s brilliant story is anchored by his superbly written characters, especially Ray Carney.

Ray is a self-made man, an entrepreneur, a family man with upward mobility, and he’s also the son of a low-level career criminal who was ultimately killed by police, and is no stranger to the streets and the criminal underbelly of his city. Against the backdrop of race riots, gentrification, and the civil rights movement, Ray tries to grow his business and improve the lives of himself and his family while being just a little bit crooked when necessary. He’s a complicated, good man who is able to move between the different societal layers of Harlem and make a lot of smart observations about what he sees and who he meets.

Whitehead’s evocative descriptions of Harlem in this time period made the neighborhood itself a character, and I so enjoyed all of the other characters populating Ray’s world. At times very funny, often anxiety-inducing, exciting and very much heartwarming, Harlem Shuffle is beautifully written and atmospheric.

I finished this book a week ago and initially determined this was a 4-star read for me, but as I realized Ray Carney and the feeling I enjoyed while reading Harlem Shuffle haven’t left me (though I’ve read two more books since), and that I can’t think of a single thing I didn’t love about the book, I’m upping it.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my copy of this brilliant novel in exchange for my honest review.